“Who’s got the key to this gate?”
“Just break it down!” yelled the frantic police officer. Just to the right of Sean’s arm, you can see the chain and the slight opening that led to the clearly labeled Emergency Exit.
The time was 6:45pm. We’d been in the infield at Churchill Downs, on this, the first Saturday of May, also known as the 138th Kentucky Derby Day, for more than 11 hours!
Our neighbor, who’d also spent the last 11 hours in temps upwards of 90 degrees and 100% humidity, lay topless and lifeless on a blue tarp under that darker blue awning in the picture above.
Five armed officers thrashed steel toed boots at the gate, while paramedics counted chest compressions and charged up the defibrillator.
11 hours earlier, when we had claimed the speck of land adjacent to this Emergency Exit, Sean had said, “I wonder, who in the world, has the key to that?”. Little did we know how prophetic that question would become.
It was 8 in the morning and we, 11 Bucket Listers, (4 adults and 7 children ranging in age from 13 years old to 22 mos) were getting acclimated to the patch of grass that would serve as our home for the entire day.
I can remember willing myself to absorb every element of the derby experience. For the last 35 years I have ached to attend “The Greatest 2 Minutes in sports” and here I was, finally!
At 10:30, the water from the early morning rain storm was evaporating, sending a wave of heat from the ground straight into the air. Things were heating up and the ponies had begun to run.
What I had always envisioned as an Upper Crust event full of fancy hats and minty cocktails, might have actually been in the bleachers, but here in the infield, where my blanket was laid out, was Kentucky’s version of ol’ school Nascar, complete with horse power and mud wranglin’ wild women!
When I had packed up my brood early in the morning, I had fretted over a possible dress code. The irony, I bemused, as the police routinely shuttled people to the paddy wagon, each with considerably less clothing than the group before.
As the day wore on, the crowds and lines grew exponentially. The garbage cans overflowed en masse by 11am, giving the infield an apocolyptic auro.
Beer bottles were EVERYWHERE! When the lines for luke warm $4 waters are longer than $8 ice cold beers, people drink beer – and lots of it!
The day was a long, hot, sweaty tirade of sun, punctunated by 9, 2 minute races. That’s 18 minutes of entertainment in 11 hours! The rest of the time was spent, picking horses from our program, standing on line making bets, collecting meager winnings and occassionally yelling at people who tried to encroach on our homestead. Is that what you thought the Kentucky Derby would be like? Me neither!
But as the Debutantes curls flattened and mascara ran down their faces, debauchery set in and death lingered in the air, seeking to grasp one unlucky soul who had miscalculated the brutal force of the heat and toll of the unrelenting sun.
Minutes before the 6:30 post time, our ‘camp’ was a flurry of activity as we packed up and got ready to make a mad dash to our trucks (parked 1 mile down the road).
What we had sacrificed in lack of shade all day (ultimately leaving with 1st degree sunburns) we made up for in portability as we had no cooler or awning to tote home. You can click here to learn from our mistakes and make sure you are more prepared for this once in a lifetime event.
The crowd swelled toward the gates, and collectively held their breath as the Triple Crown contenders made their mad dash. “I’ll Have Another” claimed the lilies for the fillys and we pivoted 90 degrees to make a hasty retreat.
And then the commotion started…
The Emergency Exit, quivered and wavered with each kick, but absolutely refused to yield egress to the victim who so desperately needed it as the seconds ticked away his life force.
As my eyes searched for the epicenter of the emergency, he came into focus. A bloated, milky corpse with first responders swarming his body like buzzards. With my 9 year old at my side, I stood frozen as the scene unraveled in front of us.
There was counting, and puffing, and pleading and praying, but the man could not be coaxed back to life.
Then a shout of “CLEAR” and the paddles were placed on his bare chest. His body violently arched and floated back to the tarp.
Applause broke out! He had been revived, but his status was still critical.
How would they transport him through this crowd to get him stabilized?
How long had he been unconscious before the police had arrived?
Would they ever get that Emergency Exit open?
And who in the world had that key?
I have no idea what happened to that man. I hope he’s ok and maybe rethinking is attendance for next year’s derby.
As for me… the next time I attend the Kentucky Derby will be via a chauffeured limousine, watching the event from the comfort of my air conditioned box. Until then, I’ll just tune in!